The first time I heard anything about rap music was on the news. A reporter was on a roof top in Harlem where a bunch of black folks–mostly teenagers–were having a dance party. A DJ–I remember him being older than the crowd–was playing records on two turntables at the same time, using a mixer. The records–both 12″ inch singles– were of the same track, Rick James’ Mary Jane.
The song, already a funk masterpiece, was made even funkier by the DJ extending the thumping beat breaks, turning them inside and out in an improvisational groove solo that drove the crowd wild. He achieved this affect by deftly moving the records back and forth with his fingertips, alternating from one record to the other. The technique, I later learned, was called scratching.
In addition to the scratching, a singer was randomly, rhythmically chanting over the altered beats, “sweet Mary, go Mary, my Mary.” When the crowd began chanting along, the singer altered his cadence and went into his own improvisation of rhyming phrases, creating yet another layer of syncopated rhythm.
From the reporter, I learned that the singer wasn’t a singer. He was an MC and that the music the two were creating was called rap–and that it was taking New York City by storm.
That was in 1979. I was in eighth grade.
Like most white teenagers of my age, I didn’t take to rap music (today we call it hip hop)–or so I thought. In 1980, the new wave/pseudo punk band Blondie, released their Autoamerican album.
Blondie was one of my favorite bands. At that time I only listened to Top 40 radio and the band’s single The Tide is High, was riding high on the charts. Consequently, Autoamerican was one of my Christmas presents.
In those days I would play my favorite songs on an album over and over. If I was lucky, there’d be, maybe, two or three hits on an album.
In any event, after awhile, I’d tire of the same songs and I’d play the whole album. The song Rapture was unlike anything I’d ever heard.
By this time I was in high school. Some of the tough kids in my theatre class–kids that I, initially, was afraid of–derided the song. “Disco,” they said, scrunching up faces as they made obscene finger gestures.
But I knew Rapture wasn’t your standard disco tune because I loved disco. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack was one of my favorite albums, although by this time, I didn’t admit it. These were the days of a vehement backlash toward disco from white “rockers,” i.e.,”the tough kids.”
Although Rapture had the signature four-on-the-flour disco beat, I was cognizant that something else was going on. I thought the song was great. But I also thought it was weird.
For instance, I had no idea who Debra Harry was “rapping” about in the song’s infamous coda:
∗Fab Five Freddie told me everybody’s high
DJ’s spinnin’ are savin’ my mind
Flash is fast, Flash is cool
(∗Hip hop pioneers Fab Five Freddie and Grandmaster Flash)
And I couldn’t make heads or tails out of this:
∗And out comes a man from Mars
And you try to run but he’s got a gun
And he shoots you dead and he eats your head
And then you’re in the man from Mars
You go out at night, eatin’ cars
You eat Cadillacs, Lincolns too
Mercurys and Subarus
(∗Possibly alluding to the extraterrestrial funk of George Clinton and Bootsy Collins and the graffiti art of Fab 5 Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquiat.)
Nor did it occur to on me that what I was listening to was a derivative of the rap music I’d seen and heard on the news only a year or so before. So firmly was Blondie entrenched in the new wave gray matter of my mind.
And though I considered Debra Harry ultra hip and glamorous, it’s no wonder that I didn’t recognize her homage. What she does on Rapture is no more rap than what Hank Snow does on I‘ve Been Everywhere.
By the mid 80s I was firmly immersed in rock-n-roll. So when one of my favorite bands, Aerosmith, reworked one of their best known songs, Walk This Way, with rap heavyweights Run DMC, I wasn’t impressed.
As for the Beastie Boys–I didn’t hate them, but I didn’t like them either.
It wasn’t until I began to work as a DJ in the latter part of the decade that my attitude toward rap/hip-hop began to change. If nothing else, I recognized the genera as an important weapon in my arsenal of tunes.
Then in the early 90s , I did a complete one-eighty when Dr. Dre dropped his Chronic album. That’s when I got hooked inside and outside of my profession.
Try as I might, there was no denying the contagious vibe and irresistible power of Nothin’ But a G Thang. Same thing with Snoop Dogg’s What’s My Name. These songs were my bazooka and my flame thrower.
When I hit play, the dance floor would explode with throbbing thumping bass and drum machine beats and writhing bodies, all the while Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg traded rhymes in lazy, menacing flows, as long on cool as James Dean–and a lot more dangerous.
Nowadays, a lot of things have changed. My daughter Blaine, wasn’t a year old when The Chronic came out. Now she’s twenty-nine. My daughter Zoe wasn’t even born yet. Now she’s got her associates degree and is contemplating going back to school. Fingers crossed.
I rarely listen to anything from Dr. Dre or Snoop Dogg. Or Aersosmith, for that matter.
But I do still listen to Outkast and the Notorious B.I.G. And I still listen to Blondie and Steely Dan. And Patsy Cline. And The Allman Brothers.
And I will always listen to Elvis and Fats Domino. I have listened to them all of my life. They were my mother’s favorites.
And I listen to Jazz. Occasionally I will even put together a mix.
I don’t make music, though some DJs do.
Absolutely, they do. They’re musicians.
Grandmaster Flash made music. Still does. Same goes for Kurtis Blow.
Jam Master J made music, until someone took his life.
Moby makes music. So does David Guetta.
And Francesca Lombardo.
Lot’s of DJs do.